County council picks the wrong fight

June 10, 2011

Most of human history has come and gone without the esteemed members of the Baltimore County Council offering commentary about it. An incalcuable number of state-level policymaking decisions with broad implications for taxes, abortion rights, the environment and the economy have been made over the decades with nary a peep coming out of Towson.

Yet this week the council has decided that their tongues can be held no longer. What state policy could move three men and two women so fiercely as to rise up and speak out for or against a decision of the Maryland General Assembly and governor?

None other than the state legislature's vote to offer an in-state tuition at the community college level to all Maryland taxpayers and their children, not just those state residents who can prove their legal presence. A majority of the council issued a statement Thursday in strong opposition to Maryland's Dream Act.

The pretense for this action is that the law -- which opponents are seeking to reverse by voter referendum -- would be costly for the county. But that's nonsense. The total cost of the law statewide has been estimated by budget analysts at $3.5 million annually of which Baltimore County would be a relatively small fraction, particularly within the context of a $1.6 billion annual county budget.

What's really going on is that certain council members think publicly declaring opposition to the tuition plan will give them a boost with voters who harbor deep resentment of illegal immigrants. The referendum petition is a populist cause with significant support in certain quarters of the county. (Incidentally, councilmembers Ken Oliver and Tom Quirk declined to join in this nonsense).

But these press-release loving council members, many of whom are political neophytes in their first months on the job, ought to be careful of exactly what kind of message they are sending. Baltimore County's history of civil rights is something less than blemish-free. The last thing needed is more evidence of intolerance.

From the beating of a transgendered individual at a fast-food restaurant this year to the historical inequities in county hiring and elected representation, the county has seen its share of discrimination. It has, for instance, long opposed efforts to provide subsidized housing for low-income African American families now living in the city in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.

The petition drive scarcely needed the support. Opponents of the law appear likely to gather enough signatures to get it on the ballot. But council members apparently couldn't resist fanning the fires of resentment and anger and had to chime in. Even their press release acknowledges the matter is "emotionally charged."

One can only hope that the council will put forth as much interest in county matters. The loss of 200 teaching positions in county schools next year? Not much being said on that front. All seems quiet on the economic development front, too, despite the fact Baltimore County has the highest unemployment rate of any Maryland suburban county.

Of course, those problems would require greater effort than wasting time with a one-page press release.

--Peter Jensen

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